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The setting is the near-future (or then-near-future) west/mid-west U.S., somewhere potentially subject to periods of drought. The protagonist is either new to a small farming community or newly returned.

As he's driving around he notices at various farms some abandoned solar energy collectors; I recall them being described as trough-shaped reflectors concentrating light/heat on a tube and somehow that was used to generate power. They didn't work well enough, hence nobody is using them anymore, but the government program that provided them also didn't want them back, so they're just sitting around.

As noted, it's dry in this community, dry enough that there's danger of drought wiping out the crops. Somehow the guy has a brainwave and starts pumping ambient heat through the collection tube of all these solar power devices, pointing the reflectors at the clear northern sky to radiate the heat into space. He manages to start dumping enough heat into space to create a localized low pressure system, which pulls in some moisture and the community finally gets some rain.

I would have read this in a monthly SF magazine the 1980s or 90s.

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  • I think I've read this, probably in Analog. Could be by one of the American authors who's spent time in that kind of countryside and writes environmental/meteorological SF. Someone like Jerry Oltion, perhaps, or Stephen L. Gillett, Ph.D. (who sometimes writes as Lee Goodloe). Can you remember any more details? Position in the magazine, cover picture, internal illustrations, ...? Oct 5, 2020 at 19:12
  • @PhilvanKleur I have a fuzzy mental image of a woman's face, a guy bending over a solar collector, a dusty street that might be interior art or just something my brain put together. I wouldn't include it in the question because it's too nebulous. Analog is a definite possibility in that time range. I just looked at the covers of IASFM and Analog online and, while I can recognize a fair number of cover stories just from the tiny thumbnails, I don't see any that I associate with this story.
    – DavidW
    Oct 5, 2020 at 20:02

1 Answer 1

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This is "Only the Weatherman" (1990) by Doug Larsen, published in Analog Science Fiction and Fact, September 1990.

I have the narrator confused; of the two main characters Joan Thompson and Jim Newman, it is Joan who is the viewpoint character. Joan has recently returned to Harlowton, state undefined but in the rain shadow of the Rockies, after 7 years away, having finished a bachelor's degree in engineering and a master's in physics. Jim is an ex-classmate also recently returned from studying farm management and earning a master's degree in science.

Harlowton used to be a farm town, but now it's a drought town. Dad is the city engineer, and Mom is vice-principal of the elementary school, so we live in town. And I could see the effects of the drought all around. Lawns were stretches of dry, brown hay. It was so bad that the kids didn't even play on them, which added to the feeling of abandonment.

Joan spots the first solar collector when her Uncle Jerry is showing her around his place:

After dinner, Uncle Jerry gave us a tour of the farm. As we strolled out toward the barn I noticed something off on its south side. "What's a solar collector doing here?" I asked, leading them in that direction.

"Well, I've had it since before you were born," Uncle Jerry said. "I stored it under a tarp behind the barn until about four years ago, when I got it working again."

"How did you happen to own one in the first place?" I asked.

"Years ago, Harlo was part of a Federal Solar Test Area," Uncle Jerry explained. "Just about everybody on a farm got one. We figured it was just another federal boondoggle, but we used them for a while. Then interest in solar dried up, and nobody knew what to do with them, so we stored them away."

The solar collectors are indeed trough-shaped:

I looked over the apparatus. It had a parabolic trough-shaped collector, not the dish-shaped one that I usually picture on solar collectors. It was fairly simple—it would have to be considering how old it was.

Joan has a late-night thought:

I groped for my alarm clock and looked: three in the morning. But I was wide awake.

Why? It hadn't been a noise in the house. I put on my bathrobe, tiptoed out to the living room, and pulled a chair up to a bookcase full of my college textbooks, then I started pulling books off the shelf and leafing through them furiously.

Joan explains her brainstorm to Jim:

"[list of gases and absorption lines] When you're done you've got the blanket over the Earth. The blanket has a lot of little holes where there are no absorbing gases, but the only really big one is from eight to twelve and a half microns."

This was obviously more detail than Jim wanted, but he nodded politely. "So?"

I smiled at him triumphantly. "In your barn, you've got a unit that will radiate heat into space at wavelengths that will include eight to twelve and a half microns!"

He looked a me with comprehension slowly flooding his face. "Ohhhhhhhhh," he breathed. "Oh, wow!"

"That's what I said at about 4:30," I said. "We can use the parabolic reflector as the vehicle to send heat out of the Earth environment, just like the Earth does."

The plan is to generate a low pressure system to bring in rain:

"Ah!" I said. "What happens when you've got a large area that's full of heat, and you pump some of the heat out of the middle?"

He shook his head. He wasn't following me.

"You create a low pressure system," I explained. "You also create a front. Which draws in moist air and creates rain."

He shook his head again because he couldn't believe what he was hearing. He stared intently at me. "You mean... let me get this straight. You're saying that our proof will be that we break the drought?!"

And of course, this being an Analog story, there's rain at the end:

I saw clouds! Beautiful, gray, angry clouds! They were fantastic! I held both arms in the air and screamed in triumph.

I looked back toward city hall, and saw my dad and the city council spilling out of the doors. I gestured them wildly over to where I was, then I looked up again.

The first drop fell on my face.

It was warm and wet. I gasped in surprise, and then I laughed in delight. I've never felt anything so wonderful in my life.

Rain was pattering down around me now, making dark polka dots against the faded asphalt. As I watched, the rain picked up to a brisk pace.

Even my memory of a picture of a man (Jim) bent over a solar collector and a woman (Joan) isn't that far off:

Joan, instructions in hand, watches Jim tighten a fitting on a solar collector under the scorching sun

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  • This is in the same issue as "Outlaw," one of the Kya stories I re-read yesterday to answer a different question; I found it purely by chance, and because I'm incapable of putting a magazine down after reading just one story.
    – DavidW
    Jun 9, 2023 at 20:48

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